Interactive Arts and Media
Associate professor and gaming guru Tom Dowd works hard to make gaming fun.
In 1989, Tom Dowd dreamt up Shadowrun, a tabletop roleplaying game that mingles cyberpunk dystopian settings with old-school magic. In intervening years, the Shadowrun universe has grown to include a trading card game, four video games, two magazines and more than 50 novels (with a handful written by Dowd).
Today, Dowd expands on more than 20 years in the gaming industry as an associate professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department, where he specializes in high-level game production classes. He also serves as associate dean of the School of Media Arts. Here, Dowd talks about his humble warehouse beginnings, what makes Columbia College Chicago’s game design program one of a kind, and the most important element of game design: fun.
How did you get started with game design?
When I was in high school, I got a job at a game publishing company, working the warehouse. You’d line up 20 boxes on a table and put a piece of paper in each of them and then drop two dice in each of them. I read the stuff we were publishing and—[with] 16-year-old arrogance—went “I can do this!” I’d been a nerd, playing roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons for years. So I said “All right, I’m gonna write one of these!” I wrote it, they published it.
What do Game Design students find in Columbia classrooms?
We have a program that addresses all the major components of game play. We have designers who are in charge of game play. We have artists who are in charge of 3D and 2D artwork. We have programmers who make all the pieces work together. We have sound guys who do all the sound effects and music. We have specialty students who do product management.
You get a good amount of theory here, but we also understand that what’s going to get you work when you get out of here is what you can show off. The stuff you’ve done, not just the stuff you can talk about. We’re very proud of the way [we] have the senior capstone put together—they’re actual production courses.
How do you bring your professional experience to the classroom?
For 20 years, I was a professional game designer. I have multiple game titles that I’ve produced. My biggest one was a game called MechAssault for Xbox—which sold over a million copies. So, been there, done that. I can tell students what it’s really like. What they really have to worry about, what they don’t really have to worry about.
We can kind of cut to the bone and say, yeah, there’s all this theory stuff you need to worry about—but really, you need to figure out how to make it fun. Not fun for you, but fun from the user’s perspective. Ultimately, how are you going to make this product fun for thousands of other people? That’s the bottom line.